The Hungarian Holocaust Revisited- New books about Dr.Kasztner

Writing about anything connected with the Holocaust is very difficult for me, perhaps almost impossible. It is the ONE and only subject which when writing about, I cease being an historian, a cool-headed researcher, an observer from the outside, who uses utmost powers of restraint when analyzing and describing events from this period.I am writing as a Jew, as a Zionist, as somebody who never set foot on German soil, who never knowingly owned German products, and one whose immediate blood family did not experience the Holocaust. Those of my readers[hope there are any…] who want to abandon reading this blog already now, not wanting to read an emotional ”rant” are welcome to do so, but In order to maintain my integrity and for the sake of complete transparency, this short introduction is of the essence. And with the endless revelations about this terrible chapter in our history, the story of the Hungarian Holocaust has never ceased to amaze as well as scare me.

It amazed me as it was such an unbelievable situation, being a huge drama even amid the overall drama of the Holocaust. Almost half a million Jews being sent to their death in Auschwitz at a stage of the war [three months leading to early July 1944], when the Third Reich was already doomed, sure to lose the war, short of trains, of fuel, and yet, there were trains, there was fuel, there was Adolph Eichmann with his team of SS killers, and on top of that there was UTMOST MOTIVATION to destroy what number of Jews which it was possible to exterminate. Exactly the opposite of the infamous Hannah Arendt, The Banality of Evil theory , as she described and analyzed in her Eichmann in Jerusalem book. Nothing banal, everything ideological, exactly as it was nothing banal with the SS LAW professors, who volunteered to be the commanders of the killing squads in Russia in 1941. But then, the story of the Hungarian Holocaust has always been one which scared me . Scared me, because there is a dimension to it which I find extremely painful , and this is the analysis of what was or was not the role of Jews , and especially Zionists , in being either in connivance with the Nazi plans and their execution in Hungary , or even sadly enough, actively participating in them. And when this question comes to light, the name of Dr. Rudolph Kasztner comes to mind, and I need to make it clear already at that point, that I intend to leave my readers with the same questions which I am still having, even after reading two books just published about the subject. One by Anna Porter, Kasztner Train;The True Story of an Unknown Hero of The Holocaust, and Paul Bogdanor, Kasztner’s Crime. The Bogdanor book is the one I was impressed with. What put me off about Porter’s book to start with, was the reference to Kastztner as an ”unknown hero”. Let us leave the ”hero” to later, but unknown? well, Kasztner and his life story with the unacceptable end of them, by bullets of political terrorists in Tel Aviv in 1957, was anything but unknown. He was very well known, and Porter, unfortunately, failed to provide us new information, sources , materials of one kind or another , which sheds completely new light on the man in the eye of the storm. In fairness, also Bogdanor did not provide me with any new and sensational evidence, which portrays Kastzner in an entirely new light . In fact, As of the late 1950’s , when I was first exposed to the Kasztner affair by the brilliant description of the Kasztner trial in 1953-4 , by the late Shalom Rosenfeld in Criminal Case no.124[in Hebrew], I have been grappling with three particular questions; First, what did Kasztner do in order to inform Hungarian Jews about the true destination of the trains which left Budapest to Auscwitz? Second, what if any, was the role of Kasztner in the fate of our great national hero, Hannah Szenes, and finally how can it be justified, that Dr. Kasztner wrote letters on behalf of Nazi war criminals soon after the end of the war, murderers like Kurt Becher, who was the Right hand man of Adolph Eichmann?

Referring to people like Kasztner in absolute terms, as either villains, collaborators and traitors on the one hand, or heroes on the other hand, is , by definition, a awesome, scary task. The legendary Claude Lanzmann in his films about the Holocaust, particularly the latest about Benjamin Murmelstein, the Elder of the Jews in the so-called ”model Ghetto” of Theresienstad[The Last of The Unjust], exemplifies the dilemma in such a strong way. There are those who have defended people like Haim Mordechai Rumkowski, the ”King” of the Lodz Ghetto, the Head of the Judenrat there, who is otherwise almost universally is acknowledged as a notorious conniver with the Nazis[who did not spare him in the end]. Kasztner on the other hand, was the man who in coopertaion with Eichmann was responsible to the train which carried 1684 Jews to freedom in Switzerland. Not something to be glossed over with, as we Jews know , that saving even one soul tantamounts to saving the entire world, even if done as part of a sinister Nazi plan to mislead the vast majority of Jews, by showing that they could still be saved. The problem in dealing with people like the ones mentioned, including Kasztner , is the inherent difficulty to pass judgement on people who may have truly believed that they did what ,under the circumstances, was the maximum which could be done. Bialik wrote about the impossibility of the revenge for the blood of babies, a poem written after the pogrom in Kishinev, but one which was so relevant to the Holocaust. On the same token, can an historian REALLY put himself in the shoes of Dr. Kasztner and his partners in Budapest of summer 1944, or even in the shoes of Rumkowski? and still, history is written about these and other people, judgments are being passed, conclusions are being drawn, and so is in our case.

Between Porter and Bogdanor, I veer to the side of the latter. He gives us a more compelling and convincing overall assessment of Kasztner, but that said, I ,for one, do not share the word crime in reference to Kasztner. I am deeply troubled, almost traumatized by the well-researched answers which Bogdanor gives to the questions which I posed above, which are in fact, at the core of the Kasztner affair. Yet, I am not wholly convinced, that even if the answers provided by him are well-documented, and they are, It is enough to leave Kasztner with the most dreadful stigma that a Jew can have, which is to be a collaborator
with the Nazis, whether implicitly or explicitly. Kasztner’s premature death, death in the hands of criminals, leaves us with the benefit of the doubt. What, if any, we would have known and understood better were HE to tell HIS story. Still, Bogdanor book is a must read, and the readers I believe may very well be left with the questions which I am left with, but this is probably one of the greatest lessons of the Holocaust -it is an event which forces us , Jews and others, to go far beyond and above the conventional wisdom when trying to understand and explain it. Perhaps Dr. Kasztner himself was a victim of his understanding that he was witnessing something beyond the reality as he expected it to be, and his attempt to deal with it, the way he did, ended up tragically, as probably no other end was actually possible.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina